Posts Tagged ‘Robert K. Merton’

Richard Baxter and the Puritan Celebration of Science

May 3, 2013

Amongst some atheists, the Puritans have a reputation as the cruel opponents of science. Much of this appears to come from the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view of Puritan responsibility for the horrors of the Salem witch-hunts. A previous generation of historians of science, such as the sociologist Robert K. Merton, believed that the Scientific Revolution was partly caused by the Puritans. This view has since been rejected. The interest in science and desire to promote and expand scientific knowledge was not unique to the Puritans, but also included other Protestants, such as mainstream Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, as is shown in the numerous scientific academies that existed in Roman Catholic countries, such as France and Italy. Nevertheless, many Puritan ministed strongly supported and took an intense delight in the new science, which they saw as leading to a knowledge of God. Richard Baxter was one of these Puritan ministers. Amongst his other achievements, he was the leading advocate of religious toleration during the British Civil War. Its inclusion into the American Constitution was due to his influence, rather than that of later Deism. He also strongly supported and promoted science. In his Christian Directory, written in 1664-5, he wrote:

‘The very exercise of love to God and man, and of a heavenly mind and holy life, hath a sensible pleasure in itself, and delighteth the man who is so employed … What delight had the inventors of the sea-chart and magnetic attraction, of printing, and of guns, in their inventions! What pleasure had Galileo in his telescopes, in finding out the inequalities and shady part of the moon, the Medicean planets…’

Modern American science owes much of its existence to the Dissenting Academies set up in England by the Puritans during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Puritan academy in Northampton, for example, taught mechanics, hydrostatics, physics, anatomy, and astronomy. The founder of one of the earliest of these academies was Charles Morton. Morton later emigrated to America, where he became vice-president of Harvard. He then introduced to that great, august American institution the system of science that he had established in England.

Far from being uniform opponents of religious liberty and scientific investigation, it was the Puritan ministers and educationalists Richard Baxter and Charles Morton who founded the American tradition of religious liberty and science respectively.

Source: C.A. Russell, Science and Religious Belief.